Can Marketers Use Brand Megaphones Inbox

The Registrar who officiated at our wedding was a man who had clearly watched too many Hugh Grant movies. In addition to the mangalsutra (for me), garlands (both of us), ring (for the groom), he demanded a ring for the bride. That had not been planned for. A wedding guest hastily unwrapped her gift and it was lovingly put on my hand. I did not consider any of these suitable for every day use and they were put away safely. Oh, but I was a victim of marketing too and I wanted a solitaire on my finger. So in 1998 when we got a free gold coin with the purchase of our Maruti 800, we exchanged it for a diamond ring at Tanishq.

Perhaps Tanishq’s customer data reveals that the majority are in favour of inter-faith marriages. As a pan-India brand with a marketshare of 5% it is possible but not likely. Inter-faith marriages last year in Delhi were just 3%, though of course, a larger base might approve of them, or more likely, not care as long as it is not in their own family. Why do marketers and brand owners like to take a stance on social and political topics? One reason is to get noticed. Brands like Titan’s own Fastrack have built a brand image of being rebels who defy societal norms. Youth, broadly speaking, tend to be rebels and that is the brands target audience, so it makes sense.

In a 2015 article about Myntra’s LGBT themed ad for Anouk, I had put together this 2×2 matrix of causes that marketers can choose from. Some may have moved around a bit since then, but you’ll see that most of these have been used by an ad. If you pick one in the top left quadrant you are quite likely to get noticed. Whether you will get trolled and attacked depends largely on whether your chosen theme riles people with a large following or media platform. They are not necessarily your customers, but they can sure shape the opinion of your buyers.

The second reason for marketers to pick a risky cause is because they genuinely want to drive social change. And they can piggy back on their brand’s platform to do so. When the decision maker is the proprietor this is praise-worthy – because upside or downside, they will be bearing the brunt of it. Even then, in a larger organization, unless employees and other stakeholders are also with it they will not be willing to withstand the negative fallout on the owner’s behalf. But what if you are a listed company with a diversified ownership? Then you have to choose your battles carefully and get the buy-in from your shareholders, so that they are with you in this decision. ING restricting investments in fossil fuels is an example of a public firm doing good at a potential impact to their profits, but with public discussion. 

Nike’s endorsement of Kaepernick is frequently cited as a case study for a risky social stance paying off. Given that research says over 50% of Americans support the cause now, and Nike’s knowledge that its user base may be even more skewed in favour of it, it was perhaps not as risky as it seems, though still very brave as it defied the majority political view. But all causes are not the same, and all brands are not Nike. And even here, Nike did not directly enter the fray, using Kaepernick instead as a proxy for their brand’s POV.

Marketers should not use the platform provided by a brand’s media budget to advocate a cause, unless the brand owner agrees to do so. In the case of Tanishq, given the Tata group’s social stance and previous ads with a social theme, it is quite possible that this was the case. The promoters own a majority stake in Titan which makes it possible, though the minority shareholders and stakeholders like retail staff may have felt the need for consultation on this strategy, which would explain the rollback.

B2B brands tend to avoid any kind of controversy, channelizing their energies and funds rather into their CSR activities, and employee welfare schemes. They can be caught on the wrong foot on issues like data, environment or diversity, but these are generally in areas where the laws are unclear or there is a regional variation. Trust is the key criteria for any business, and they don’t want to take a chance.

I’m a Peanuts (Snoopy) fan, and two quotes seem apt. One is where Lucy says “I can’t help thinking this would be a better world if everyone would listen to me” and the other is where, in response to Charlie’s question of why she took umbrage, she says “because it was just lying there.” Both are cautionary tales for the modern marketer. There are many, many Lucys out there!

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